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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - Barron's Booknotes
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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES

A graveyard nearly encircled the Haworth parsonage, where
Emily Bronte lived for most of her thirty years. Emily's mother
died in that parsonage in 1821, when the girl was three. Two
years later, Emily and her three older sisters were sent to
boarding school, where two of them, Maria and Elizabeth,
succumbed to typhus and died. Other than such bare,
depressing facts as these, we know very little about Emily
Bronte's life.

Jumping from the life of any writer into his or her work is
risky, but usually there is something to narrow the gap just a
bit: letters, diaries, or confidences to friends. There is almost
nothing like that of Emily's, so you have few clues as to how
she felt about any of these facts. In part this is because
Haworth is in Yorkshire, in northern England, far from the
cultural circles of London. But even by the standards of a quiet
country town, Emily was reclusive. The other surviving
children-Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne-at least talked to
other people. And since Wuthering Heights was not widely
read or appreciated in its day (in fact, it was not generally
recognized as a masterpiece until this century), no one bothered
to find out anything about its author. The person who was
pressed for information was Charlotte, after the success of her
second novel, Jane Eyre. In the strong light shed on her, you
catch glimpses of her more gifted younger sister.



The Bronte children were left largely to their own devices.
Their father Patrick, the vicar, was eccentric and domineering.
He spent most of his time in his study and even took his meals
there. The children's aunt, who moved to the parsonage shortly
after their mother's death, didn't like the cold, bleak, isolated
town of Haworth, and stayed mostly in her room with the fire
banked high and the door firmly shut. Discipline was lax;
circumstances seemed to foster an independence of spirit.

The practical Charlotte and the submissive Anne went to
school and found jobs as governesses; but Emily rarely left
home, and little is known of what she did at Haworth. She
wandered over her beloved moors, did the ironing, baked the
bread, listened to the servants' stories.

How could such an inexperienced young woman as Emily
Bronte have written so convincingly in Wuthering Heights of
passionate love? As far as is known, Emily showed no
romantic interest in anyone, but there were plenty of examples
of the frustrations of love around her. (And surely she got some
inspiration from books she read.) A young curate was attentive
and flattering to all the sisters and to a friend Charlotte made at
school; Anne was the only one who took him seriously, and her
heart was broken. Charlotte agonized over an unrequited
passion for the married head of the school in Brussels. And
then there was Branwell.

A brilliant conversationalist, Branwell started hanging around
bars in his teens, and if a stranger stopped by, he would
entertain him for the price of a night's drinks. At first all the
family's hopes were pinned on him, but it soon became clear
that he wouldn't even be able to hold down a job on his own.
Anne eventually got him a position as tutor for the Robinson
family of Thorp Hall, where she was governess, and he fell
wildly in love with the mistress of the place. Either because the
husband found out, or because the wife tired of him, he was
dismissed, and spent the rest of his short life addicted to
alcohol and opium.

While Branwell was devoting himself to his love affair, his
three sisters were busy writing. Charlotte had found some of
Emily's earlier poems, and persuaded Emily to contribute to a
book of verse by all three sisters, to be financed by money left
them by their aunt. The three picked the pseudonyms of Currer
[Charlotte], Ellis [Emily], and Acton [Anne] Bell, and their
literary careers began. Turning from poetry to fiction, Charlotte
wrote The Professor and Jane Eyre; Emily, Wuthering Heights;
and Anne, Agnes Grey-all under their pseudonyms. Charlotte
and Anne soon revealed their true identities; while Emily, true
to form, forbade her sisters to reveal anything about her.

Two months after the "Bells" were unmasked, in September
1848, Branwell died. His dissipation had been too much for the
frail Bronte constitution to bear. Emily herself caught cold the
day of the funeral, the last day she ever went outdoors.
Consumption took hold quickly. She wasted away before her
anguished sisters but continued to see to her chores, refusing
medical attention. On December 19, at the age of thirty, she
died, unaware that her only novel would some day be
recognized as a masterpiece.

Anne died half a year later, at the age of twenty-nine. Charlotte
died at the age of thirty-eight. Patrick Bronte lasted another six
years; he had outlived all his children.

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